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Computing (FOLDOC) dictionary
software patent
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legal A patent intended to prevent others from using some
programming technique.
There have been several infamous patents for software
techniques which most experienced programmers would consider
fundamental or trivial, such as the idea of using
exclusive-or to plot a cursor on a bitmap display. The
spread of software patents could stifle innovation and make
programming much harder because programmers would have to
worry about patents when designing or choosing algorithms.
There are over ten thousand software patents in the US, and
several thousand more are issued each year. Each one may be
owned by, or could be bought by, a grasping company whose
lawyers carefully plan to attack people at their most
vulnerable moments. Of course, they couch the threat as a
"reasonable offer" to save you miserable years in court.
"Divide and conquer" is the watchword: pursue one group at a
time, while advising the rest of us to relax because we are in
no danger today.
Compuserve developed the GIF format for graphical images
many years ago, not knowing about Unisys's 1985 patent
covering the LZW data compression algorithm used in GIF.
GIF was subsequently adopted widely on the Internet. In
1994 Unisys threatened to sue Compuserve, forcing them to
impose a sublicensing agreement for GIF on their users.
Compuserve users can accept this agreement now, or face Unisys
later on their own. The rest of us don't have a choice -- we
get to face Unisys when they decide it's our turn. So much
trouble from just one software patent.